Strangefolk, State Theater, Portland, ME – 3/31
Photo by Rob Chapman from a few nights earlier
A presidential motorcade had come and gone, Snoop Dogg and his entourage had left town, and as a beautifully crisp Saturday afternoon wore on, a new group of pilgrims arrived in Portland with high expectations and energy to exorcise. The brew pubs filled up as locals wondered just what the weekend had left to offer; the crown jewel, fittingly, was the culminating show of the four-night original Strangefolk reunion tour. Leave it to a band always more comfortable on the fringes of the mainstream, even inside the jamband world, content to thrive in their little corner of New England, and, more to the point—twelve years removed from playing together—to upstage a celebrated hip hop legend and a sitting president.
Word was positive coming in. Brooklyn Bowl was flawed but alive, and the Higher Ground shows were a hoot, the band seemingly growing in confidence with every song they played. The rehearsals had clearly done them well. Now, approaching the finale at the State Theater, and with decidedly fewer “debuts” to pick from, what kind of setlist would be chosen? And the question of the night: would the band be able to maintain the energy after having rocked out for three nights straight?
It was a complementary venue choice. Sold out and abuzz with anticipation, it was, for both band and fans, a family reunion. Despite all of the different individual paths we had embarked on over these years, the ups and downs and change that we had all undoubtedly experienced, it was a coming home party. Anyone who was there at any of these shows can attest—it was as if going back in time. That how we listen to music had changed in innumerable ways and shapes lately was irrelevant; we were doing it the same way and hearing it the same way as we remembered twelve or so years ago, and to hell with anyone that felt otherwise.
It was a beyond joyous celebration.
With the crowd a fifth audience member from the outset, the band took the stage and promptly landed inside one of their great gems, ‘Reuben’s Place’, with its apt lyrics of “Excuse, me, I think I’ve been here once before.” Rhythm guitarist, lead vocalist and raconteur Reid Genauer laid out the formula: engaging, engrossing stories wrapped around punchy hooks, laid atop the solid if not spectacular low end of bassist Erik Glockler and drummer Luke Smith. Then it was lead guitarist Jon Trafton to take the tunes to the stratosphere, offering his brand of graceful, seemingly effortless playing. Throughout this evening he was spot on: during the opening tune, his work was indeed patient and alive in all of the right spots, building the crowd into a frenzy before some sixth sense interplay with Genauer, until the latter stepped forth with a vocal improv including snippets of his ‘Seranade Serene,’ before easing back into the ending notes of ‘Reuben’s’.
From there it was right on to Glockler’s ‘All the Same’, a well-placed rocker with a simple chord progression and some wonderful multipart vocal harmonies, and another tune with reflective lyrics that served as a nice vehicle to set the mood for the night. The song built into some real group jamming, each member playing ferociously off one another that would serve as a welcome preview of things to come.
‘Valhalla’ followed, offering a great chance for a group sing-along, and 1500 people sang in unison along to a tune that could be listened to a thousand times and never get old, carrying that familiar warmth that Genauer embraces in all of his songs. It was fitting, of course, that having sung it thousands of times himself there would be a slight vocal hiccup, but hey, the bumps and bruises were part and parcel for this run.
One of the major highlights of set one included Trafton’s ‘Whatever,’ a simple yet surreal musing on all things life. Its optimism and hope is as alive in its lyrics as in its song structure, and included some soulful playing by Trafton, who accents the right moments and switches tempos so naturally he proves himself a true leader in guiding improvisation. This one reached a glorious crest that left the State catching its collective breath.
Set two opened with one of Strangefolk’s most unique tunes, ‘Oxbow’, a multi-dimensional, almost mythical odyssey that moves through a number of movements, and this one did great justice to the pace and energy of the show. Smith managed an almost tribal sound on his drums as Glocker’s bass split sections up, allowing Trafton to advance with some delayed, layered effects before returning to the A section where Genauer brought it home.
Another Strangefolk classic, ‘Westerly’, was next, continuing to keep the audience afloat. Where Genauer’s other band, Assembly of Dust, manages a sharpness and sophistication to his songs, Strangefolk evokes a raw sensuality, which serves the songs well, especially on nights as festive as this one. ‘Westerly’ was example one of that fact here, emotive and elating as it surged towards its raucous conclusion.
‘Faces’ followed, a shifty and slick first and last section bookending a most relaxed, breezy interlude that proved that potentially excess noodle can always serve a purpose when it’s so damn peaceful.
The hits kept on coming: ‘Elixir’, celebrating acceptance in the pangs of change, Glockler’s ‘Blue and Gray’, a darker, grittier work that’s got about as much muscle as any Strangefolk tune, and ‘Two Boys’, one of the original originals, representing a perfect marriage between Genauer and Trafton in what works between the force and the folk, and had the crowd giving its best shot at singing along in harmony.
Trafton then stepped up to address the audience: “Thanks to all of you for making this possible. And it’s such a great, great thing. It’s a big week for us, and we’re taken aback…you guys are amazing.” It was heartfelt and honest, and the crowd gave it rightfully back.
‘So Far Gone’ continued the list of songs specifically resonating for the evening’s purpose, and had the band once again locked in, Glocker and Smith particularly sharp in the sound, blunt and where they needed to be. The band once again seemed to be willing themselves on, first fiercely and then slowing things down to an almost ambient level, with Trafton all over his pedal, including effecting the chirping of birds.
It wasn’t difficult to call the oncoming ‘So Well’, with its robust chorus of ‘And we live in and of each other, we will remain”, and the resulting playing certainly did not disappoint, the band punctuating two sets of absolute merriment.
The fourteen minute ‘Lines and Circles’ proved a perfect choice for the encore, with its calls of “Circles break and lines they bend, and you gotta let it go”, an impromptu rendition of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, and one more jaunt into the jamming ether, making sure everyone in the building felt young once again.
Strangefolk has an incredible immediacy in their songwriting, an incredible way of reaching out to its listener and creating in that person a certain ownership of the song. They are, in many ways, an antithesis to the angst of many bands in the 90’s. And this night in Portland, after twelve years apart, they proved once again formidable representatives of that spirit, and hosts of a great damn party. The State Theater was one big living room for rekindled friendships and rekindled fire, and for a couple of hours, absolutely nothing could touch it for anyone there to share in the experience.
The band glowed afterwards, and one can tell the future is bright with the original Strangefolk to exist at least on some level. On this night, they proved there’s nothing wrong with a little nostalgia, either.